The To-Do List

On my to-do list for at least two weeks now, have been:
Blog: bread (opinion)
Blog: Puritanism and American eating habits
Blog: cook book preview

Other items on the list include, "write to dad," which means, "my dad sent me a card more than a month ago and I haven't talked to him since last August, so I really ought to do something about that, maybe write a letter."

I also apparently have to "talk" to someone about script-writing (though what I'll say, I don't know—maybe that's why I've put it off for so long), and book hotels for a trip to London in September.

And what kind of opinionated things did I have to say about bread? I believe that note was inspired by Jeffrey Steingarten's book The Man Who Ate Everything, a light and comical collection of essays, mostly from the early 1990s, by Vogue's food columnist. At some point, he bitches about bread, and if I recall, I found myself agreeing.

Bread is a major topic of discussion in this household. Being that Boyfriend is from San Francisco, home of admittedly exceptional quality sour dough, he is decidedly picky about bread. On the other hand, the New York loaf, also known as "Italian bread," takes some getting used to, as does New York coffee, especially if you are from the West coast, where thick, black java flows in the rivers, and the streets are paved with crusty baguettes (or so I've heard).

Once you get accustomed to bread in New York, it's easy to differentiate between a good hunk and a bad hunk. But travel to San Francisco, or better, continental Europe, particularly France, and a whole new world of delicious carbs opens up. Nothing beats a New York bagel, until you've had true brioche. If you don't live in new York, you probably don't even know what a bialy is, but if you can regularly get an epi baguette, with it's golden arms sticking out every which way, who the hell cares what a bialy is?

Italy has good bread, too, though I've only really been to Florence and Sienna, and in Tuscany, the bread is typically made without salt, giving it a very specific and almost peculiar identity. Belgian bread is as good and varied as in France. In Barcelona, slices of baguette are used for serving little nibbles of food, or pinxons. In Athens, miniature hula-hoops of sesame-studded breads are sold on the streets all day long, but mostly eaten for breakfast.

There a myth—and maybe it's not a myth, really—that various regions cannot produce the bread of another region due to the quality of its water. It may be true in part, but it's hardly the whole story.

Different areas and climates produce different natural bacteria, and hence, yeasts. And that's where flavor, rise, and a whole host of other properties of breads begin. Jeffrey Steingarten does a fair job of explaining in it his book, and extends that premise to include other factors, like the specific type of grain that is used in a place, and so on.

But I have to cut myself off here and not get too wrapped up in bread. After all, I really should write my dad a letter.

This is a Milkshake: Let's Call a Spade a Spade

When I think about how uneducated people in the U.S. are about food and nutrition, it makes me angry. And I don't blame The People entirely (though I do think individuals should be held accountable for at least some modicum of their own ignorance).

No. Who I really blame are the companies that push "product" on the people and pretend that it's food. More and more I'm recognizing this difference between product and food, so let's play a little game. Can you identify the "foods" shown below?

What is this?

(Thanks to Tsutsui Igor for the photo.)
If you said coffee, you're wrong!

Did you say Frappuccino? Nope, that's a brand-name product.

This is a milkshake.

Next question:
What is this?

(Thanks to terfe for the photo.)
It's not breakfast!

It's not a Krispy Kreme doughnut.

It's cake!

Next round! This one is hard.
What is this?

(Thanks nycwatchdog for the photo.)

Despite the company's name, it's not juice.

It's certainly not breakfast or lunch.

It's not a "meal replacement."

It's not a "protein" or "power" anything.

It's not a smoothie either.

It's a milkshake, a sherbet milkshake!

Okay, last one:
What's this?

(Thanks, TheFrugalGirls! Hey, did you know Kashi is Kellogg's?)
You know what this is? It's a candy bar.

I know my sisters are going to comment with other ideas of products masquerading as food. I anxiously await those comments!

On Focus, Dabbling, and Dreaming

Tonight, Boyfriend asked if I was still interested in becoming a sommelier.

"Sum-uhl-YEAY," I corrected him.

"Sum-uhl-YEAHR," he said. "You're a girl."

Right. His French is years ahead of mine.

I had been investigating a series of classes that one can take in New York, once a week for 15 weeks, to become a sommel— to become a wine expert. For about nine hundred dollars, you get to drink wine every Tuesday or Wednesday before noon with a bunch of other people, and at the end, there's a test and if you pass, a piece of paper declaring you a sommelier.

I had been looking into the classes when I was laid off, while I was working freelance and had more flexibility in my schedule. However, I recently started a new full-time job, so I don't think I can nip off from 9:00 to 12:00 once a week to sip and spit six different kinds of Super Tuscans.

This day job of mine is about technology, as have been several of my day jobs. Technology pays the bills, and often, I find it interesting, but it's never been a personal hobby or interest. Although in the last week or two, I've been thinking a lot about computing, and how much I really do have a mind for programming (many people have told me that I think like an engineer or a programmer).

Last night, I was reflecting on those two things that had come up: 1) me wondering if I ever might take up programming to the extent that it really becomes integral to my job, perhaps as a serious writer of technology (currently, I'm more of an editor and journalist, relying on other experts to be my knowledge source); and 2) me two months ago wondering if I might like to become a sommelier.

What both of those things show about me is a complete lack of focus and dedication to one thing.

It's not a bad thing. I like to dabble. I like trying a million things. I like learning about two dozen subjects. I like baking one day, grilling the next, and growing my own vegetables and herbs the next.

But I have great respect, and sometimes envy, for people who do one thing exceptionally well.

All my dabbling usually circles back around to writing, but even there, many writers do one thing very well while I move around from idea to idea and genre to genre.

My last thought on this is to share another disconnected thing I've been doing, which is writing a series of short pieces for my friend's blog about watching Twin Peaks, the television show from David Lynch and Mark Frost, for the first time almost 20 years after it aired.

Yeah, I do that, too.

Cookie Pâté Fight Night

Boyfriend invented this half-cooked version of cookie pâté..

"Would you guys care for any dessert?"

"Cookie pâté!"

We were cheering and hollering. "It's cookie pâté time!" High-fives were connecting one after the other across the table. Never had we been so excited to accept a waitress's final push for dessert as the night we were in a hipster pizzeria in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and saw written on the specials board, "cookie pate."

"What do you think it is?" we asked one another when we first arrived. "Do you think it's just raw cookie dough, and if so, what kind?"

"I love cookie dough! Wait. What do you think you eat with it?"

This was really exciting stuff.

When we unleashed our joy about cookie pâté to the waitress, she stared blankly at us, and blinked three or four times. She wrote nothing down. Something was wrong.

"Oh," she finally said, "you mean the cookie plate?"

Needless to say, there were looks of shock, horror, disappointment, regret, like a disheartened sadness in the eyes like when a child is denied a treat after struggling all day to be ever so good. No, we did not mean a "plate" of cookies! What the hell is the point of going to a hipster pizzeria in Bushwick if you don't even have the option of ordering deconstructed nostalgia food?

After the letdown and recovery period involving a bland pile of strawberry shortcake, those of us at the dinner -- me, Boyfriend, Googly, and Squirt's Husband -- decided that we would invent cookie pâté, and have a showdown to determine the winning creation.

A few weeks passed during which time I sketched concepts of my cookie pâté. A classic cookie pâté would be mostly chocolate chip cookie dough, with pieces of chopped biscotti scattered through the bottom third for added texture. Another variation involved under-baked brownies, a layer of Nutella, and a frozen dome of strawberry ice cream held in place with a firmed up coating of dark chocolate. Another idea would involve four different kinds of cookie dough, all layered in vertical strips: double chocolate chip, chocolate chip, peanut butter, and oatmeal.

I wrote long lists of possible ingredients and used different symbols to note which ones would add texture (biscotti, nuts, streusel), a balance to the sweetness (espresso beans, pretzel pieces), and color (a peanut butter stripe, a raspberry jam swirl).

A week before the main event, I asked Boyfriend if he wanted to submit an entry. He did, but needed help making it. "All right," I said, "you come up with the concept. I'll sketch it and make it." His involved half-baked oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and half-baked brownies, layered and smooshed together, with a bit of crème anglaise on the plate and a single raspberry. (Those two last items didn't make it into the final creation, but instead he had blueberries and a few dark cherries.)

Two days before the big showdown, I prepped two doughs so they would have time to rest and let the butter meld: one oatmeal chocolate chip and one standard chocolate chip, but with far less flour than usual. And it was a good thing that I did because when the day finally came, I was unexpectedly extremely busy with about ten other things and hardly had any time at all to assemble our dessert novelties. It was the very same day, I should note, that Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett died.

In the end, there were four participants, but about seven entries, on account of Squirt's display, "cookie pâté three ways."

Squirt's three-way entry consisted of 1) a deconstructed fig newton: shortbread, fig jam, and granola biscuit, 2) a flash-broiled chocolate chip cookie dough that she called "old-fashioned cookie pâté," and 3) a whipped chocolate chip marscapone cookie mousse, served with a savory parmesean cookie.

Squirt's mousse is in the background, left, the fig jam background right, and old-fashioned pâté is in the foreground.

My pâté (above) consisted of a half-baked brownie bottom, lightly soaked in Godiva liqueur (which was a mistake; it was too boozy and too sweet), a thin layer of creamy peanut butter, and flour-light chocolate chip cookie dough. I served it with arrowroot animal crackers, which I chose for three reasons: 1) heft, meaning they wouldn't break if a scoop of cookie dough were smeared on them, 2) their connection to childhood, and 3) they are cookies, but aren't very sweet.

Googly's presentation consisted of cookie "pâté de campagne," with homemade caramel on toasts and strawberry "cornichons" in mojito "pickle." The pâté, which was the size of a yule log, had milk chocolate on the bottom, chocolate chip cookie dough, sugar cookie dough, and Oreo crumble on top.

Googly's entry won for the category "Most likely to show up on the menu at Applebee's."

See also the Crazy Cobbled Cookies I made with the left over dough!